Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15 - Damien of Moloka'i, Priest, Missionary, Leper

The kingdom of Hawaii had one particular advantage when it came to the spread of disease since they were a chain of islands they were quarantined from the rest of the world. Of course, this boon carried a danger with it: the inhabitants were especially susceptible to infection and disease when ships began bringing more and more merchants to the Hawaiian islands. The influx of commerce and foreign visitors was accompanied by crippling outbreaks of influenza that weakened and killed many. But whereas influenza was a fast killer and survivors were able to develop a fairly sufficient immunity in a little while, there was another disease that proved to be a slow and torturous killer. This killer was "Hansen's Disease" but it is also known as leprosy and those who contracted it were known as lepers. It was hard to hide and soon the king--Kamehameha the Fifth--decided to quarantine those affected to protect the rest of his people. They were forcibly detained and sent to live on the island of Moloka'i at a place called Kalaupapa. Contrary to common assumptions, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off and isn't especially contagious but it does cause extensive nerve damage and can cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The other--perhaps intentionally forgotten--damage it does is the relationships it crushes by fear of contagion and threat of quarantine.

Damien de Veuster had been ordained a priest in Belgium but due to the coaxing of his brother he became interested in becoming a missionary. He became determined to travel abroad in service of the Church when it was determined that his brother would be unable to go himself. Damien stepped into the opportunity and was sent to Hawaii shortly before the outbreak of leprosy there. The lepers had been sent to their isolated place and given little in supplies, though, and Damien began to worry for them. They had been given some help in growing their own food--having been fully divorced from their land and people--but this support also proved to be insufficient. They were disconnected from those they loved and made to feel as if the world didn't want to--couldn't afford to--associate with them. There wasn't any semblance of community and the 816 lepers outcast to Moloka'i fended for themselves. Damien couldn't stand their abandonment and petitioned the vicar to be sent to them as their priest. The vicar made sure that Damien knew he was likely signing his own death warrant but Damien insisted and was sent by boat to the people. By becoming one of them, he was effectively exiling himself as he would no longer be able to leave once he lived among them. He went without hesitation for his Lord had called him to take up his cross and follow. In this case, it meant going to Moloka'i.

Damien built a church with the help of the lepers there and organized them into a community around himself. He treated their pains and lesions with his own hands. He conducted services of worship. He heard confessions and gave spiritual direction to the willing. He built furniture and homes. He painted houses to give their place another measure of comfort. He built coffins, dug graves, and performed funerals. In short, he became a devoted member and leader in the community at Moloka'i. Because of his involvement, the people gathered around him and joined together as one people to share in their suffering and carry each other's burdens. Because of his leadership they were able to work together to sow and reap crops each year and sustain themselves in their exile. One night he went to soak his feet in hot water--as he did every night after a hard day's work--and was frightened to find that he could not feel the heat of the water. He had contracted the disease but he kept it as his secret for a little while he worked hard to prepare the citizens of his community to go on without him when he was forced to leave them by death. As he got more and more sick the Church sent three people to take over his duties and one to care for him as he died. They carried on his legacy of love and compassion while he slipped out of this life and into the arms of the Lord who had called him from before time began. Damien died on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1889 after serving the people the world wanted to forget for over sixteen years. He was buried where he belonged: Moloka'i.

On October 11th--this year--Damien will be officially canonized (labeled a "saint") by the Roman Catholic church but he has been a saint since he took up his cross and went to join his brothers and sisters in exile.

1 comment:

Mozlink said...

For more info on Blessed Damnien see www.leperpriest.blogspot.com